Brain and Awareness – The Secret You (Horizon)

November 7, 2009

Mathematician Marcus du Sautoy is becoming an increasingly regular front-man for the BBC science documentary Horizon and, to date, his contributions have always been satisfyingly informative. The recent episode The Secret You is no exception.

In his quest to discover the underlying biochemistry and physiology of consciousness, du Sautoy visits a number of laboratories around the world where self-awareness and the notion of “the inner me” are being investigated. In doing so, he frequently participates in experiments; at one point he quips “another day, another scanner”(50:49).


Marcus du Sautoy takes part in many experiments as part of his search for the basis of consciousness

There are a raft of ethical questions which arise from functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and other neuroimaging methods, some of which I have written about elsewhere (see Disorders of consciousness: do state-of-the-art neuroimaging techniques shed new light on the brain-injured patient?).

For me, the most interesting ethical questions in the programme arise from the work of Professor Adrian Owen. du Sautoy and Owen discuss experiments conducted with patients in PVS, a Persistent Vegetative State (16:44 to 19:22, though the discussion makes most sense if you start at 15:30).


Prof Adrian Owen of Cambridge University has made exciting discoveries about the awareness of a patient in PVS

Previously our abililty to tell whether or not a PVS patient was genuinely conscious was constrained by the fact that they had no physical ability to demonstrate their awareness. In ground-breaking experiments, however, Owen and his colleagues have communicated with patients by asking them to imagine performing certain tasks, for example playing tennis, and using fMRI to show that the appropriate areas of their brains are activate. By developing this further, it is possible to get the patient to imagine two different activities which are clearly distinguishable from one another in terms of brain activity. These can then serve as proxy signals as “yes” and “no” answers to questions posed.


A patient could be trained to make certain areas of her brain active as a proxy answer to questions posed by researchers (e.g. by imaging she was playing tennis or walking around her house)

These experiments have revolutionised our understanding of brain-injured patients. In particular it brings into question the practice of withdrawing food and water from patients in PVS on the assumption that the are not aware.

Horizon: The Secret You (TRILT code 01210858) was first broadcast on BBC2 on 20th October 2009.

Washing the national laundry in public: our eugenic heritage

November 6, 2009

Simplistic analysis sometimes looks at the horrors of Nazi eugenics before and during the Second World War and wonders how they could ever have come up with such evil. The sad truth is that the philosophical roots of Auschwitz include in no small measure the influence of British polymath Francis Galton.


Francis Galton coined the term "eugenics" in 1883

The first episode of Andrew Marr’s The Making of Modern Britain A New Dawn includes a very helpful section (from 14:02 to 16:38) discussing the origins of Galton’s thinking on eugenics and the influence that they had on prominent figures in England and abroad.

Set by Marr in the context of paranoia about the crumbling Empire and embarrassment at the difficulties experienced in the Boer War, Galton’s ideas about the role of breeding in development of human attributes received a warm reception from influential politicans and thinkers of his day. Allowing the less desirable members of society to breed freely, whilst at the same time “better” members of society were having smaller families, was seen to be diluting the genetic pedigree of the race.

Although in no sense a details description of Galton’s views, this short clip could be a useful introduction to the origins of eugenics for a class in philosophy, bioethics, or indeed several other disciplines.

A New Dawn (TRILT code: 0123695A) was first broadcast on BBC2 on 28th October 2009. It is available on iPlayer until 10pm on Wednesday 9th December (UK only).